150 Years After Suffrage, Wyoming Women Still Find Equality Elusive

Aug 26, 2016

A statue of Louisa Swain, the first woman to cast a ballot. Swain lived in Laramie, WY.
Credit Caroline Ballard

  


Nearly 150 years ago, Wyoming was the first place in the country to grant women the right to vote. Congress didn't pass the 19th amendment, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote, until 1919, and it was ratified by states in 1920. Wyoming was ahead of its time, giving women the vote in 1869, but there are conflicting accounts as to why the state was a trailblazer.

“Well, when you look at the context of the time, there were other territories besides Wyoming territory that were looking to try this,” said Rick Ewig, a Wyoming historian.

Those other territories, like Washington and Nebraska, failed. Ewig said Wyoming succeeded for a variety of reasons. There were certainly people who believed in women’s rights. More importantly, though, Ewig said the legislators thought it would be great advertising and would help Wyoming get statehood.

“Let people know around the country that women could now vote in Wyoming, the first place they would have full suffrage,” said Ewig. “That would be a very important draw some people thought.”

But it didn’t quite work. It would be more than 20 years before Wyoming got the numbers to become a state. 

There was also a little known political reason for voting on suffrage. According to Ewig, voting for women’s suffrage was a way for an all-democratic legislature to embarrass its Republican governor.

“They would pass the bill, stand up for women’s rights and he would probably veto it, and that would make the Democrats look even better,” said Ewig.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead signs the executive order to create a task force to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Wyoming Women getting the right to vote and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
Credit Caroline Ballard

The governor didn’t veto it, and women were granted to the right to vote.

The state went on to have more firsts for gender equality: the first woman to cast a vote, the first woman justice of the peace, and the first woman governor. Eventually, the firsts stopped, but Ewig said the idea lived on.

“We can go back to 1869 and feel good about being the first territory, in 1890 the first state [to grant full suffrage],” said Ewig. “But overall when you look at today, the firsts may make us feel better, but they certainly haven’t proven to be reasons for us to continue to be the first in other areas of equal rights.”

For example, the gender wage gap in Wyoming is the second largest in the country, and it will be decades before that gap is closed. The Equality State also has the nation’s lowest representation of women in state politics.

As for that last piece, recently some groups have made an effort to improve women’s representation in politics in the state. Leap Into Leadership is a conference organized by the Wyoming Women’s Legislative Caucus that promotes women in the legislature and leadership development.

At a panel at that event in February, Bernadine Craft, the only woman senator in the state, said it’s a shame the equality state doesn’t have more female representation.

“We all bring different things to the table. We all have different talents, skills, and abilities, and when there’s only one woman, there are a lot of voices that are being silenced.”

Craft said more needs to be done. She even pulled out a statistic to illustrate her point.

“If we were going to increase the number of women in the legislature at the rate we’re currently going it’ll take us 300 years.”

Both Craft and State Representative Ruth Ann Petroff said the way to change is partly through better recruitment. 

“I don’t know who takes it on but a group of mentors in each community that is actively working to recruit people interested in these offices,” said Petroff.

Petroff and Craft are both stepping down from office this year, but it seems better recruitment may already be paying off. More women are running to take their place.  In 2014, 27 women ran for the legislature. This year, there were 40.

This story is part of the series Women Run The West – a public radio collaboration exploring the role of women in western politics. You can hear more stories at womenrunthewest.org.